With the April workshop looming close, Stuart and I needed a break from work and headed off for the afternoon. We wanted to pay our respects to one of the influences behind the weekend, so we took advantage of a rare break in the weather. It has rained a lot lately; many of the fields we passed were flooded and the river at our destination had overflowed, drowning the riverside pathways and marooning benches that would normally be filled with people.
We’re pretty lucky my local area… there are no rivers, just the springs and streams that arise in the chalk and meander through the Vale and we are far from the sea. Most of the time that seems a pity, as I love moving water and miss the waterfalls and waves, but with the recent persistent rain I can only be grateful.
Our little river is usually no more than a foot or two deep and seldom wider than a stream. It gave up trying to contain the influx of water a while ago and has expanded until it looks more like a lake. Riverside playgrounds and sports fields are all under water, roadside streams have escaped their confines and flooded the fields and driving is hazardous in places.
I lived beside a river in Vichy long ago and saw the power of water in flood. It is hard to imagine it, even from news footage, until you have seen and heard it for yourself. As with many things, real understanding comes only from direct experience. The water of the Sichon flowed into the more famous Allier half a mile from our home on the Rue Charlot. The Sichon was confined in a concrete channel about twenty feet wide and a set of vertical steps, rather like a ladder, led down about twelve feet from the little gate by the front door. The concrete extended to make wide banks creating a channel perhaps eighty feet wide.
While it was pleasant to watch the sparkling, fast flowing stream from the kitchen window, seeing the birds and wildlife that visited even its man-made banks. The concrete was ugly and I couldn’t understand the municipal mentality that had built this monstrosity to confine the river.
Until the first winter. Then I understood.
All one night there was noise… but in the blackness no way of telling what was causing it. Come morning, one look from the kitchen window solved the mystery. Huge branches battered the walls of the house as churning, mud-brown waves raced through the confines of the concrete channel. It was incredible to watch. It got worse, hour by hour, as I saw the waters rise to within an inch of the kitchen windowsill.
What could be moved was taken upstairs, along with supplies… there was such elemental force in the floodwaters and they rose with such speed and volume. There was no question of what would have happened to anyone or anything caught in their path or in the debris they carried. Somewhere in one of the boxes of photographs I still have a picture taken through that window, but it is not as vivid as the one in my mind that hears the noise, smells the water or remembers the rising fear.
I have been lucky, seeing this so close yet merely as an observer and not as a victim of the extremes of the elements. It was a place where evidence of the uncompromising power of nature was always close. Vichy, for all its elegance as a once fashionable spa town, lies in a region of volcanoes. Indeed they are the source of its famous thermal springs and the volcanoes of the region are only dormant, not extinct. The heat in summer can be intense and the thunder storms regular and spectacular. I have swum in a lake in an old crater, smelt the sulphur from the vents in the caves of the Puy-de-Dôme, and seen the remnants of the effects of previous eruptions. You know the earth in charge, not man, even in this seemingly gentle and beautiful landscape.
Taking pictures of the local flooding that here, at least, is little more than an inconvenience, so minor in comparison to that experienced by many, I was reminded how close we live to the awesome power of Nature, even within our regulated cities. We try our best to tame her, and our industries cause such destruction and yet, even if we make our planet uninhabitable for our species and many others, we are only destroying ourselves.
We tend to forget that we ourselves are just a very small part of Nature… a mere drop in a vast and moving flow of life that wears an infinite variety of forms. The elements of earth make up our bodies and her tides and seasons are echoed within us as they flow through our veins and hearts.
In a million years… a mere heartbeat for the life of the world… what will remain of us? Very little, perhaps, but life will continue whether we would recognise its forms or not. Even the shallow flooding in the fields serves to remind me how small we are in comparison to Nature. She is older than we by far. We, with our little lives may come and go, but she remains.